Trust me. I’ve Been There!

By David Jackman

Trust me. I’ve Been There! In the past 40+ years since being born in western New York state, I have resided in all four corners of the U.S. There was a 15-year period in which I moved eleven times – all within the lower 48 states. One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in a new locale is to get out and explore. Thus far, I’ve managed to visit 47 of the 50 United States. There are just a few tiny little East Coast hamlets yet to tick off. All of this is to say that I have seen and experienced A LOT of the U.S.! It’s given me a unique perspective on places I do – and don’t – want to return to.

Specifically for you, my neighbors to the north, I’ll focus on more southerly regions of the country for this narrative. After all, if you want spectacular mountainscapes or powder-perfect ski runs, you’ve got some of the best within your own borders. Invariably, whenever I speak to a Canadian about their travels and future destinations, balmy weather is an essential part of the equation. With that in mind, I give you my perspective on five popular, sunny US travel destinations and what I consider worthy – if not superior – alternatives.

Instead of Charleston, South Carolina, go to Savannah, Georgia!

Despite living in Charleston many years ago, I only recently visited Savannah. Perhaps because I had heard them compared to one another for so long, I presumed that Savannah would be a very similar experience to Charleston. What a faulty assumption that was!

Savannah will give you all of the Spanish moss-laden Southern charm to live out your Gone with the Wind fantasy that Charleston can, but in a much less uptight atmosphere. Where Charleston has a very compact – albeit lovely – historical downtown, Savannah spreads out its charm. You get a feel that the shops, restaurants, and businesses that fill its historic squares are all a part of one integrated city. One that locals and visitors alike can enjoy and don’t just exist for the pleasure of tourists.

If you want a party scene, the pedestrian mall along the riverfront provides it just as well as Nashville’s famed Broadway does – without those pesky open-container laws! For those desiring a quieter, more relaxed escape, there are myriad boutique hotels and short-term rentals in the squares and on the boulevards adjacent to the downtown core. Here, time seems to slow a bit,. You feel compelled to linger over a meal at an outdoor café or browse in an art gallery that you would have rushed right past if it were in Atlanta, Charlotte, or even, I say, Charleston.

Fancy a quick beach fix while you’re in town? Savannah solves that in the form of Tybee Island. A quaint little seaside town with a picturesque beach and boardwalk that begs to be savored on a sunny afternoon. Unlike the Charleston-area seaside retreats of Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, Tybee Island still feels slightly undiscovered in the best possible way. It’s the perfect place to unwind before returning to Savannah for a sumptuous evening meal. Which, is easy to find in the city’s thriving food scene. Trust me. I’ve been there!

Instead of Phoenix, go to Tucson, Arizona!

Phoenix is another U.S. city that I once called home, and although I still happily reside in Arizona, the Valley of the Sun itself wasn’t to my liking. Perhaps it’s because Phoenix is so much of a sports hub, and my taste in traditional team sports is tepid on a good day. Everything in Arizona’s capitol feels transient. More than any other city I’ve been to, Phoenix somehow lacks any cohesive identity. It seems to be built on anonymity and air-conditioning; everything else is an afterthought.

Tucson, by comparison, has a very clear and endearing identity. Even the town’s TUC abbreviation has been co-opted into “The Underrated City,” in which Tucsonans find both pride and resolve. If you’re coming to Arizona for the golf, it’s as good here as it is in Phoenix, and often for far less money. For authentic Mexican food, I will argue that Tucson beats Phoenix – perhaps not in the number of overall establishments, but certainly in quality and accessibility. Trust me. I’ve been there.

The presence of the University of Arizona can lend a ‘college town’ atmosphere to areas around campus, but Tucson is much more than a place to party. Aside from the annual gemstone show in February, when the city is overrun with visitors, Tucson can provide an array of experiences and accommodations in all price ranges. If mid-century modern is your vibe, several upcycled motor lodges from the ’50s and 60’s have become some of the hippest hangouts in town. In early November, Tucson hosts the largest Día de los Muertos celebration outside of Mexico. Unlike other parts of Arizona that seem to be at odds with the influence of Mexican heritage, Tucson embraces it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t cite natural beauty as another compelling reason to consider Tucson. No, it doesn’t enjoy the proximity to Sedona that Phoenix has, but Tucson is flanked on two sides by Saguaro National Park and sits in the shadow of Mount Lemmon, home of the southernmost ski resort in the United States. Even in the hottest summer months, an early morning hike in and around the Santa Catalinas can provide the most spectacular desert scenery and birdwatching in the entire American Southwest.

Instead of New Orleans, go to Mobile, Alabama!

I know this one will probably raise a few eyebrows but hear me out. I’ve had a lot of fun in New Orleans, don’t get me wrong. I’ve also gotten extremely tired of New Orleans extremely quickly. Mobile doesn’t do southern decadence as outrageously as New Orleans. However, it still does it very well, and without many tradeoffs, you have to accept when visiting a town renowned for being a non-stop party. Trust me. I’ve been there!

Let’s start by getting the big one out of the way – Mardi Gras. While New Orleans is famous for it, Mobile lays claim to the original and oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. Having attended it personally, I can tell you that it is a very fun time to visit Mobile. While perhaps not as grand or all-consuming as the NOLA version, the same laissez-faire is at the core of Mobile’s Fat Tuesday fete.

Aside from Mardi Gras, downtown Mobile is rife with old southern Gulf coastal charm. Dauphin Street is lined with bars and restaurants filled with echoes of the French Quarter, yet it’s also distinctly modern in a way one doesn’t expect from a small city in Alabama. Rainbow flags are not uncommon, and friends seldom believe me (but it’s true!) when I say some of the best sushi I’ve ever had was from the OK Bicycle Shop in downtown Mobile.

Another advantage Mobile enjoys over New Orleans is its proximity to beaches you’d want to visit. You can go from charming, historic downtown Mobile to the sands of Gulf Shores or Orange Beach in about an hour by car. Scantly more than 2 hours and you can be in Destin, Florida. In just a few days, you can have a party weekend in Mobile and then recover and relax on a pristine Gulf Coast strand. That’s my idea of a good time rolling and, in my opinion, worthy of foregoing beignets at Café du Monde.

Instead of San Diego, go to Santa Barbara, California!

If you ask anyone who professes a love for San Diego why they’re so enamored by it, the phrase “perfect weather” will inevitably pop up early in the conversation. Here’s the thing, though – most of coastal southern California has ‘perfect weather’ year-round. So why has San Diego amassed such a cult following? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Unless you’re a zoo devotee or someone with no ethical qualms about patronizing SeaWorld, San Diego doesn’t offer much to set it apart from other well-to-do regions of SoCal. The beaches are status quo, there aren’t any major theme parks, and the food scene is adequate but not a compelling reason to visit. Trust me. I’ve been there!

If you go north from LAX instead of south, in about the same amount of time it takes you to reach San Diego (or less, traffic-depending), you will find yourself in Santa Barbara. A town that most folks have heard of, but surprisingly few have visited. The atmosphere here is similar to the upscale likes of La Jolla and Dana Point, but the presence of UCSB lends it a more youthful energy. Where San Diego touts its Gaslamp Quarter as funky, hip, and historically significant, Santa Barbara seems to give you that in its entirety. It’s not just isolated to a single neighborhood.

Don’t anticipate saving any money by choosing Santa Barbara over San Diego. However, you can expect easy access to unique experiences in the surrounding area. Nip down to Ventura or Oxnard to catch a boat to Channel Islands National Park. Advanced planning and reservations are strongly recommended. You’ll experience one of the US National Park system’s least-visited but most impressive members there. While the coastline and beaches here are achingly beautiful, if you’re not feeling your sea legs, I recommend taking an afternoon to skirt the Santa Ynez mountains and head inland to the offbeat hamlet of Ojai. This small enclave in the foothills has embraced the arts and wellness scenes for many years. It has a reputation for funky inclusivity and creative license, making it the perfect day trip from Santa Barbara.

Whether you like museums, hiking, beach sports, boating, yoga, or American West history, you’ll find something that speaks to you in Santa Barbara, and you can count on far fewer crowds than you’ll find further down the coast. And yes, there is even a zoo – if you absolutely must.

(If you’re a foodie, check out this foodie must do’s…)

Instead of Hawaii, go to Costa Rica!

Okay, now, this one is a bit of a sweeping generalization; I’ll grant you that. Can I be audacious enough to suggest that you bypass visiting one of our nation’s most glorious tropical states and instead leapfrog to an isthmus in Central America? You bet I can – and let me tell you why!

First of all, you’re already getting on an airplane, and it’s not a short flight either. Second, most of the things that you can do in Hawaii, you can do in Costa Rica for half the price. Surfing? Check. Horseback riding? Yep. Snorkeling and diving in crystalline azure waters teeming with marine life? Check-check. Swinging on vines above a swimming hole created by a natural waterfall? You betcha! Traversing a tropical rainforest to ascend a volcanic caldera wreathed in clouds? That too!

You get the idea. Costa Rica has the same Pacific tropical feel as Hawaii, with a few distinct advantages. The primary one is cost. If you travel extremely high-end, I suppose you could spend as much as you would on a Hawaiian island. However, you’d have to be actively trying to do so. For most mid-market and near-luxury accommodations, restaurants, and activities, saying it’s half the cost of Hawaii is not an exaggeration. Trust me. I’ve been there!

Another reason I prefer Costa Rica to Hawaii is how compact the nation is geographically. Island-hopping can seem alluring and romantic on paper. Still, when the volcano is on one island, the best national park on another, and the primo surfing spot is on yet another, you can spend much time and money getting from one must-do activity to another. In Costa Rica, the distances between distinct attractions are much shorter and more easily accessible. Don’t be intimidated by the language barrier, either. Although Spanish is the national tongue, I’ve found that English is spoken widely enough to navigate situations with locals easily.

If those weren’t compelling enough reasons to put Costa Rica at the top of your list, let’s talk wildlife! Costa Rica has all the whales, dolphins, and sea turtles that Hawaii is famous for, plus monkeys and sloths. It’s like Hawaii isn’t even trying! In all seriousness, I do love Hawaii. And I will go back when my bank account allows, but I’ll be returning to Costa Rica much, much sooner.

(If your bank account allows you to visit Hawaii, visit all the breathtaking Jurassic views…)

Simply no alternative! Trust me. I’ve been there!

Some destinations have no rival. Hollywood is singularly unique! There’s only one Las Vegas (which is probably a good thing). And nowhere in the contiguous United States can match the tropical Caribbean vibe of the Florida Keys. Other vacation hotspots, though, have been skating by on brand recognition for decades. The world is bigger and, at the same time, smaller than ever. Today’s travelers have more options and information at their fingertips than ever before. Use that to your advantage, and you may find that the road less traveled leads to even greater delights. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Thinking of a trip to the USA?  CONTACT US Traveling Solo? Be sure to read our Top 15 Solo – Travel Tips!

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